An emotive issue or a welfare issue?

Sun, 30/06/2019 - 21:58pm

To the casual observer, if a dairy cow does have to have a calf every year to continue producing milk (which it does), leaving those calves with their mothers would seem a fairly simple change. Nothing could be further from the truth. This ‘simple’ change impacts the entire production process, majorly!

That is why dairy farmers, and others, will pick holes in a system of production that they just do not want to work. For if someone can demonstrate that Cow-with-Calf is a system that can work, even at a modest scale, then the pressure will be on for others to follow.

So why, if the concept is so toxic in our industry, are we even trying to rock the dairy boat? I guess there were two main drivers. Firstly the visitors to our farm over the past 25 years have been, largely, an average family with little knowledge of modern farming. Their reactions to finding that a cow has to produce a calf annually to continue milking, and the observation that our calves had been separated from their mothers, was interesting. For many, particularly the women, this ‘standard pratice’ was deeply troubling.

It was this reaction that forced me to see our cows through our visitors’ eyes. To accept the sentiency of these animals and recognise the deep emotional pain that separation at birth was causing. Not just for the cow, who was more demonstrative, but also to the calf that had spent nine months developing a ‘relationship’ from within its mother. Sure, some cows would often re-join the herd after calving with barely a backward glance, but closer observation showed her restless and call occasionally towards the calving pens, cocking her ears for a reply, but the calf was long gone. Others bawled for days.

The second driver for the change was our experience with ecological farming. It took us ten years to get our heads around organic farming with a constant strong temptation to give it up. But gradually our soils recovered from the chemical pummelling they’d received previously and we got better at understanding how it all worked (because we were moving into new territory with little academic, or industry support). Then our yields began to recover to the point that we were getting similar production levels to those we’d achieved pre-organic, but without the cocktail of chemicals that are causing increasing environmental. 

So while have barely scratched the surface, we are beginning to learn how to harness some of the power of nature. And for me, that was the key message. If we copy these natural systems, there is a win-win payoff. It was working for our land and crops, could it also work for our animals?

Like the early years of organic, the first year of cow with calf was excruciating. Leaving the calves in the presence of their mothers outdoors is fine, but indoors (during the winter months when the grass doesn’t grow) is a whole different ball-game. Diseases that the adult cows are resistant to just explode amongst young, susceptible calves in an artificial, enclosed environment.

Cryptosporidium was a particularly lethal problem as we struggled over that first Christmas to keep calves alive. With good veterinary advice we changed our calving management in terms of hygiene protocols, plus we started feeding each calf a top-up of high quality colostrum, which has seen the disease almost totally disappear.

Similarly the use of a new concept in disease control by flooding the housing environment with benign bacteria (environmental inoculation) has seen the incidents of pneumonia fall by 80%.

So, once again, we were using natural systems and adapting our management to meet these new challenges without becoming dependent on technologies with dangerous side-effects, such as anti-biotic resistance.

It has been a fascinating, if nerve-racking, journey. We’ve learned a lot as, I believe, have the cows.

It has been so important to introduce changes gradually, from training new heifers to the parlour routines pre-calving to introducing the newly calved cow and, more particularly, her calf to their social group in a fashion that mimics their natural behaviour in a free-range environment. This reduces stress and susceptibility to disease.

The process of weaning takes months, managed gently and gradually to minimise stress on both the cow and her calf. We start with overnight separation - separate bedrooms - ensuring there’s only a rail or fence between them. Then in the final week we clip a small plastic flap onto the calf’s nose which allows grazing and water drinking, but gets in the way of suckling. Of course there’s a bit of frustrated grumbling but at the end of the week the calf is weaned, we shut the gate and remove the clips and there’s hardly a squeak. 

Farming this way is not easy, it takes a total change of mind-set and it is still a compromise. We certainly don’t have all the answers but there is a willingness to learn and adapt to accommodate the needs of the cow and her calf. Is it viable? This year we are on track to break-even financially, with several benefits yet to fully feed through over the next 5 years or so. 

So is this an animal welfare issue or just an emotive issue? Perhaps it’s more a question of ethics...


This blog was written in response to industry comments included in an article published this weekend in The Guardian, which you can read here:

David Finlay